Living in a neurotypical dominant world is a very complicated experience for Autistic people. It is one which also unfortunately inflicts a great deal of trauma on us. The world is filled with unspoken rules that we are apparently missing the book of. There are social norms that aren’t compatible with our neurology. I remember growing up feeling that I was alien in this world. I wasn’t able to connect with people nor did I fit in with my peers at school. This had impacted my beliefs system as I developed negative views towards myself due to my struggle to connect and being isolated. Some people told me over the years that I just had to find my tribe and my people. Thankfully a few years after leaving school, I was able to meet other Autistic people for the first time and develop friendships and relationships with them. Still, it has only been a small amount and I did not feel truly connected to a community or to the Autistic culture.
Autistic culture has probably been my dedicated interest in the past year. Learning about the experiences of Autistic people from all backgrounds truly feeds my soul. It has been a long desire of mine to connect more to this community and culture that I can be a part of. To find the sense of belonging I have been craving my whole life.
This year I got my first opportunity to immerse in Autistic culture when I attended the Autistic-led retreat in England known as Autscape. This is an annual event open to Autistic people (and non-autistic people) where we can watch a conference of talks by Autistic speakers, join activities set up by Autistic people, or just meet others in the venue and enjoy spaces to ourselves. Nothing at Autscape is mandatory and attendees can join in as much or as little as they want. Knowing so much of Autistic people’s needs were considered and implemented into the organisation of this event gave me the reassurance I needed to sign up. It was a long drive to the venue (with rage-inducing rounds of traffic) but every second was worth it.
The handbook described Autscape as a place where “being Autistic is not special, it is ordinary” and this was evident from the moment I arrived. I could see the vibrancy and richness of our Autistic culture and community during the few days I was here. People were free to stim around the venue, walk in their bare feet, wear their sensory aids and no one who had a meltdown was judged or shamed. To unmask as Autistic people is not easy nor is it safe in certain situations to fully unmask. A space like Autscape I believe provides us with the chance to learn how to unmask gradually in safe spaces. There was a feeling of coming home at Autscape. When we have to mask and suppress ourselves to avoid suffering in society, we can lose sense of our identity. For those of us who attended Autscape for the first time, we were given a unique challenge in learning how to be Autistic and allowing ourselves to be more in tune with our true self.
At the orientation of the retreat, we were provided with badges of different colours which indicated our interaction preferences. I found these useful and went between the green (want to interact but struggle to initiate) and white (I can regulate my own interactions) depending on how I felt. Initiating has always been a challenge for me so badges such as this did help.
I have rarely if ever felt more at peace in my life than I did at Autscape. Even simple things such as sitting outside the venues grass areas and just seeing other Autistic people in their element had this serene and mystical quality to it. There were several times I thought I was in a dream as it felt too good to be true. Aside from extreme heat this week, there was a lot of Autistic joy I felt in walking outside or just being in nature around the venue. The retreat had an activity on the first night known as ‘Sparklies in the dark’ where we were given a glowing light stick in a darkened sports hall and walked around the room. It was an incredibly immersive activity that I will never forget. Something so simple yet it just felt so liberating for all of us in the room. There was a peaceful energy in here as though we were all in a deep meditation together. Just being in that environment was magical & Autistic people naturally started forming groups in the hall. Some of us preferred to sit or just walk around with our glowing sticks and stim. Everything is humanised at this space. No one is judged for being who they are or for how much they want to interact. For someone like myself, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the stimulation of the glowing lights. I discovered this is a pleasant stim for me.
I was grateful to meet many wonderful Autistic people over the course of the 4 days I was here. It was a joy to interact with a variety of Autistic people from ethnic minority communities, LGBTQ+ Autistic people and witness the diversity of our culture. Nonspeaking Autistic people were welcome in this space too. Over the event I was able to make new friends and gain new contacts. Interactions would happen so naturally and in unexpected moments, as though there were elements of fate or synchronicity bringing people together. I felt that putting myself out there with my desire to connect to the community helped this to happen organically. During interactions, I recall several Autistic people saying out loud how it was actually ok for them to share small facts or info dump about their interests. For many of us, it can be the first time we get to do this without being told off or invalidated. Before I knew it, I was speaking to new people and within an hour we were sharing life experiences. I’m not a religious person but I found that this week was a real spiritual experience which will forever impact my life.
Given my experiences of trauma and rejection it did not take long for my mind to jump into thoughts of “not doing enough” while I was at Autscape. I did feel guilt for not participating in some activities or not meeting and talking to more people while there. I am getting better at practicing kindness to myself and focusing on the things I am proud of myself for, such as the things I did join in and the people I did speak to. It helped when I reflected each night on how much I gave myself a push to attend this event in the first place. The journey itself was the longest I have ever done, so this was a lot. I gave myself more gentle pushes during the four days where I went out my comfort zone. I did this through the people I interacted with, as well as when I joined and spoke in discussion groups, which led to me gaining new contacts and people eager to link up with me in the future.
This guilt or worry about us not ‘doing enough’ was a recurring theme I noticed with other Autistic people at the event. It’s not surprising how we can easily feel this guilt or blame ourselves when we have lived under neuronormative expectations for so long. As the days went on, I did feel more comfortable to go to my room for breaks and recharge my energy levels unlike when I’m in neurotypical spaces. It is still difficult having to do this when so many choices are available with various activities to meet people but I knew I had to pace myself. Being in an Autistic space for the first time can feel like a shock to the system given the social norms we are used to being forced on us. I’m sure with more opportunities to join these kinds of spaces that this will become easier. I am already anticipating next year and look forward to opening myself more to meeting new people and joining activities.
Something I am passionate about is helping Autistic people to discover themselves. While educating neurotypical people on our experiences is important and part of a current role I have, I find we are missing an important aspect when it comes to allowing Autistic people to understand themselves and their own culture. For too long, we have been throwing strategies at people and creating support plans without ever thinking to include the person. I believe funding more Autistic-led spaces like this could allow children, teenagers and adults to go on their journey of self-discovery. Too much of the education system prioritises having ‘acceptable’ metrics of attendance, exam results and very little is focused on wellbeing. Self-understanding is important for everyone & this is especially so for neurominority groups like us who go through our lives believing we are ‘wrong’ or that we are burdens to society.
For most of my life I have struggled to meet one of my main needs, that being connection. At times, I have believed that I am not lovable nor able to have many friends or relationships. A space like Autscape provided me with a way to link in with Autistic people and encourage myself to find new experiences and new people. My time here has helped me learn that I am not incapable of being social nor am I unable to love. I, like all Autistic people, am a complete and whole human being. I actually do want to connect with people. It is just that I do this differently and that I need to connect to more of my neurokin. Autistic culture does exist and spaces like Autscape are undeniable proof of this.
My time at this space feels life changing and already being back home has made me feel like I’m entering a new stage of my life. I recognise the importance of connecting to my people and my culture. How this is instrumental in meeting my own needs. It has inspired me to put myself out there to meet other Autistic people and even create spaces locally. We do not have go through our lives alone or to feel worthless and unlovable. The only thing we ever lacked in our lives was disconnection from our own Autistic identity and culture. It is so important for us to find ways to connect with each other and build Autistic togetherness (a great phrase used by one of the Autscape speakers).
This week also gave me a deeper sense of hope for humanity going forward. Outside of Autscape, the world is a bleak place and things seem to get worse every day. Being here showed me what can happen when Autistic people gather and create spaces designed for us. It displayed the beauty of our Autistic culture and that we deserve to love and accept ourselves for who we are. I will always cherish the enriching conversations I had and the mesmerising energy of this space. I wish I could live in a place like Autscape and get to connect with new Autistic people every day. It was a place that felt like home to me and gave me a taste of what a sense of belonging feels like. Autscape is what I needed at this point in my life and it inspires me to seek out more connections and to be vulnerable. The week has also given me a new perspective on the work I do and what I can do to truly help Autistic people. Leaving this Autistic bubble does fill me with anxiety and I felt that the first night it ended. I hope going forward that I can take the lessons and experience of Autscape and do justice to our Autistic community and culture. The experience also pushed me to finally publishing this blog after being uncertain as to when I would launch this.
It gives me hope that as we return to the neurotypical world that we can work together to create a new world that is truly inclusive to Autistic people. We can work together as Autistic people and with neurotypical people to understand each other and our cultures. We can begin to deconstruct social norms, gender norms and neuronormativity. Being in an Autistic space reminded me how we have nothing to be ashamed of and how Autistic people actually make the world a better place to be.
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